Editor's Note: This segment includes mentions of sexual violence.
Many Americans associate slavery with the South. But an increasing number of northern families are discovering that enslavement is part of their ancestry as well — either as enslaved people or as enslavers.
Eleanor Mire, a friend of host Robin Young, is a Black woman who traced her lineage to Mary Vanderzee, who was born in 1801 to the enslaved Egberts family of Coxsackie, New York. In 1799, slavery started to be slowly abolished in New York, but it wasn't completely banned in the state until 1827.
Mire was recently contacted by a white woman named Debra Bruno, who had been researching the very same family — which, to her dismay, she discovered were enslavers.
Mire found out through research that even though Mary was born free, she had become a servant companion to the children of a white Dutch family, the Houghtalings.
Mary became pregnant at 13. By 19, she had five children. Mire says Mary was likely raped by someone in the Houghtaling family.
Mire is directly related to Mary through one of her early children, Thomas Vanderzee, who took the last name Vanderzee only after Mary married John Vanderzee. Thomas was her great, great grandfather.
She says she looks back at Mary “with wonder and hope that she did get past it and, you know, didn't live with nightmares and was able to get on.”
When Mire took a DNA test, she discovered she carried the white Houghtaling’s DNA.
“I have connections on DNA with Houghtalings, but we don't know how,” she says. “It's probably the male Houghtaling because my grandmother always said that her grandfather, who would have been Thomas Vanderzee, was fair skinned and blue eyed.”
In her research to understand her family’s roots, Mire says the hard, emotional genealogical work was made more so because white people who hold many of the pieces to her puzzle usually declined to talk to her.
But Bruno was different. She came to the table ready to share information she had and learn from the past.
“Yes, my ancestors did enslave her ancestors,” she says.
Bruno, who was raised in upstate New York, was told there were no enslaved people in her white Dutch ancestry. When she found out that indeed there were, she posted information on the Facebook group I've Traced My Enslaved Ancestors and Their Owners — and Mire responded.
The two are now doing research together — and an almost immediate kinship between them was born.
“We are a team and we work together and we have the same goal,” Bruno says, “which is to get to the heart of who these people were.”
On Mire’s grandmother always telling her and her sister that none of their family members were enslaved
Eleanor Mire: “Yes, she did say that. And it was because there was still, you know, growing up with her, it would be a shame to admit that there had been slaves in the family, but she had to have known Mary Egbert. Maybe the family told her that we had never been slaves. ... Because when they were able to get their freedom, they also did very well. Mary and John owned their own home. My great great grandfather, Thomas, was a steamboat pilot. I found that working on the Hudson [River] on boats, commonly there were a lot of Blacks that were able to work in that profession, they had their own homes and did quite well.”
On trying to connect with white people now to understand her ancestry
Mire: “Well, you run into a problem, too, where there are people who want to deny that their family were slaves. But when you're doing this type of genealogy, people want to deny that their families held slaves. When you are trying to reach out to a white family who may be related, they close the door. They will disappear. They will block you because they don't want to deal with the fact that they might either have Black ancestry or not even ancestry, just kinship. And it's the oddest thing that I've run into. … One of the last things you tell people is, ‘By the way, I'm Black’ because boom, it's gone. They don't want to deal with it.”
“They don't want to deal with their families having had slaves in the family. They don't want to deal with possibly having Black ancestors. And they don't even want to go so far as to think that one of those ancestors had children with a Black woman or a Black man, and that you would be not even related by blood, but by a certain kinship. They don't want to have that kinship.”
“... I don't know what they are afraid of. This is just history. This is something, you know, this kind of rounds us all out together. I just don't understand why you wouldn't want to know the whole story of your family. ... Good and bad. If you want to claim a king, you have to claim the janitor. They want to be descended from that king. They don't want to hear about the janitor or the scullery maid.”
On the I've Traced My Enslaved Ancestors and Their Owners Facebook page
Mire: “A lot of white people who found out that their family held enslaved people and have found wills and have found documentation have joined — and it's the greatest thing. A lot of them didn't realize that that's a tremendous resource. People who have wills up in the attic, every bit of information counts.”
On doing historical research
Debra Bruno: “I was at the library during research on Saturday and I kept sending Eleanor texts and pictures and I'm sure it totally overwhelmed her with everything I was sending.
“... For example, I spent some time this week looking at the old church records from the first reformed church of Coxsackie, and they were baptizing babies. Then all of a sudden I came to a section where it would just say, ‘This baby was baptized from an enslaved woman.’ And that's all you would have. You would have no other information. So to be able to find who these babies were, who were actually baptized in the Dutch Reformed Church, just kind of makes you crazy to try to figure out how do you get to that? Who were these babies? Who were these people? What happened to them?”
On coming across a will that made clear Bruno’s family had been enslavers
Bruno: “I really felt, oh no, it couldn't possibly have been my family because my family was poor. They were poor farmers. You know, I had imagined [slavery in] the South. I had imagined the large plantations of the South. And you can find the actual digitized version of the handwritten wills. So here in this beautiful, flowery script, the ancestor’s will saying, ‘Whenever the Lord deigns to take me to him, here's my Negro boy Will, who goes to my son. And here's another slave who goes to another person.’ And the moment that I saw that, I felt as if somebody had punched me in the stomach.
“... We thought that the South were the racists, the bad guys in the fight. We were the northerners. We fought the Civil War to end slavery. And we were the abolitionists and we had this underground railroad that we were very proud of. And we got the escaped slaves to Canada. And it turns out that it wasn't quite so simple as that.”
On reaching out to Mire
Bruno: “I was terrified because I thought, ‘Why would she want to have anything to do with me? My ancestors enslaved hers. My ancestors did terrible things to her ancestors. What right do I have to reach out to her?’ ”
On Mire’s reaction to Bruno contacting her
Mire: “This is 150 years ago or whatever. And for people to have some sort of guilt about it, it's not right, you know, you're not responsible in any way, shape or form. I was very excited. Usually trying to connect to white ancestry, I said it's like slamming a door shut. Making history on that level more personal, I think that grounds you in where you are today.”
On Bruno’s white ancestors' erasure of their past
Bruno: “I think the erasure was much more deliberate. It didn't fit into the narrative of who we were as New Yorkers. If you had an ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War, as I did, or an ancestor who fought in the War of 1812, as I did, those were the stories that were told. You know, if you find a 1790 census and you find that your ancestor has checked off, ‘Yes, I have six slaves,’ that doesn't enter into that pride.”
On why Bruno became invested in research
Bruno: “This is my job. This is the reckoning that I can do to tell this story. I have to tell this story. And Eleanor has to help me tell this story. It does carry through to racism today. This kind of sense of white people being separate from Black people is absolutely a flaw in our way of thinking. And we have to kind of imagine that we are both complicit in this and we bear responsibility.”
Mire: “These families were living side by side. Mary had, I believe, four or five children. These children grew up in that area and they were related to the cousins of the white family. They were cousins, they were half brothers, half sisters, but they all lived in this little community together. And I'm sure people knew who the father was and what kind of a dynamic must that have been.”
On how understanding their family histories have changed them in the present moment
Bruno: “For me, it has changed me, absolutely. I don't feel guilty. I do feel a weight of responsibility. I didn't know that I would find this ugly truth and that then I would find a woman who was part of that story that would help me learn even more and who has a wealth of understanding about this that I didn't. So I had a great education just talking to Eleanor. I think about everything differently now. I think about the 100th anniversary of suffrage for women. And I'm thinking, well, suffrage for white women, you know, so it's changed my perspective on everything.”
“... We're part of this family tree that the branches intertwine. And it's so complicated that I'm not sure we'll ever be able to straighten out those branches. But we're trying.”
Mire: “I myself, I feel grateful that she opened the door. It's been very hard to chip away and get into the other side of this. And what she is doing is getting to the other side of this, and I don't think she realized how wonderful that is, that finally, someone from the other side, not only opened the door, she’s kicked the door open and said, ‘OK people, you've got to look at this.’ I mean, in the whatever years I've been doing this, this is the first time that's happened. I'm so grateful that she's done that.”
This article was originally published on August 31, 2020.
This segment aired on August 31, 2020.